Responding to a long-standing complaint by activists for persecuted Christians in the Middle East, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced Wednesday that President Donald Trump has ordered the State Department to stop funding U.N.-sponsored programs, saying the administration will work directly through faith-based groups in the region.
“From this day forward, America will provide support directly to persecuted communities through USAID,” Pence said at the “In Defense of Christians” annual solidarity dinner in Washington.
“We will no longer rely on the United Nations alone to assist persecuted Christians and minorities in the wake of genocide and the atrocities of terrorist groups,” Pence said.
“While faith-based groups with proven track records and deep roots in these communities are more than willing to assist, the United Nations too often denies their funding requests,” Pence said.
“My friends, those days are over,” he said. “This is the moment. Now is the time. And America will support these people in their hour of need.”
Since the rise of ISIS in the Middle East, leaders of local churches in the region as well as groups dedicated to aiding persecuted Christians such as the Knights of Columbus, Aid to the Church in Need, and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association have warned that most humanitarian aid designated for victims of ISIS genocide isn’t reaching Christians because it’s administered through large refugee camps where Christians generally aren’t found.
The pattern across the region is that Muslims fleeing ISIS move into the camps, while Christians rely on the local church – either through subsidized private housing, or shelter in a church facility such as a convent or parish center.
On a recent reporting trip to Lebanon, several Syrian Christian refugees told Crux they would “never” consider taking refuge in one of the large camps, despite the variety of services offered in them, either out of fear that jihadists might have infiltrated, or simply a general lack of trust in living amid a Muslim majority again.
Rana, who asked to withhold her last name, is a mother of three children aged nine, five, and one, said it would never enter her mind to move herself and her children to a camp, despite the services available there.
“They stabbed us in the back,” she said, referring to her Muslim neighbors in her Syrian village, saying she fled to the central Lebanese city of Zahlé precisely because it’s known for having a strong Christian majority.
“We were living peacefully with them, but they planned [the attack] under the table,” she said. “When the war started, they came after us.”
“I’ll never trust them again,” she said.
Sana Samia, an aide to Greek Melkite Archbishop Isaam John Darwish of Zahlé, told Crux that because Christian refugees don’t go to the camps, “they depend on the Church for absolutely everything.”
Father Elian Chaar, who oversees the archdiocese’s finances, said that over the last three years it’s been compelled to spend an extra $2 million annually on refugee assistance, and while it’s received support from private groups such as Aid to the Church in Need, it’s had no public funding from entities such as the U.N. or the U.S. government.
Moreover, there are consistent reports that even when U.N.-sponsored programs make an effort to assist Christians, results are uneven, suggesting that greater reliance on local groups who know the realities on the ground would improve outcomes.
Steve Rasche, the legal counsel and director of IDP resettlement programs for the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, Iraq, recently told Crux that one cogent example of a U.N. “disconnect” lies in the fact that in a July 2017 UNDP fact sheet on Support for Minority Areas, the town of Tel Kaif in the Nineveh Plains region of Iraq is listed as a place where “stabilization work is accelerating.”
“Tel Kaif is an historically Christian town that has been ethnically cleansed by ISIS, and is empty of Christians,” Rasche said. “They have a large Sunni population there, and the Christians are terrified to go back because of what happened.
“How disconnected do the people publishing these reports have to be that they don’t even know that town has been ethnically cleansed of Christians?” he asked.
To add insult to injury, Rasche said, Tel Kaif has been recognized as a safe haven for family members of slain ISIS fighters.
“The women and children who have been fully indoctrinated in the ISIS mentality are now there in this town that has been ethnically cleansed of Christians,” Rasche said. “But Christians aren’t getting any help.”
Given that background, many veteran leaders of the push to support Middle East Christians welcomed Pence’s announcement.
“For almost two years, the Knights of Columbus has warned that Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East have been falling through the cracks in the aid system, and has been urging the United States government to provide aid directly to genocide-targeted communities,” said Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus.
(The Knights of Columbus are a primary sponsor of Crux.)
“We are pleased that tonight, the administration has promised to do just that,” Anderson said. “The hope this announcement will give to Christians in the Middle East, and the real-world impact it will have on the survival of threatened minority communities, cannot be underestimated.”